Religion and the Onslaught of the ’60’s

In the movie MASH Hawkeye observes Major Frank Burns praying, and remarks, “Have you ever seen this syndrome before?”  Duke replies, “Not in someone over the age of eight.”  That interchange captures the spirit of the late ’60’s/late ’70’s.  Irreverent, anti-authority, self-confident, free love,–and in the movie, elitist.

I grew up in the ’60’s/’70’s and feel that there is much to be treasured from that era, now gone.  Peace and love, philosophy, self-reliance, music, freedom, individuality.  But along with these ideals, this idealistic time, came the kind of spirit that MASH captures so well.  Religion is ridiculed and the religious Frank Burns is an intolerable character.

Where so we go from there?  The spirit of the ’60’s/’70’s declared religion to be childish and ridiculous, and irreverent camaraderie to be the virtue of the day.  I think society bought it, and that those values persist today.  People turn to pop-culture to find behavioral norms and proprieties.  And for some, probably a lot, there is no place for prayer, no use for prayer.

Churches are failing, even synagogues and mosques are seeing diminution in attendance.  A while back I thought we are in a “post-Christian” age.  Now I see it as a “post-religious” age.  Even the “spiritual-but-not-religious” demographic is less than half of North American culture, and only a fraction of the population in Europe.

Certainly there were bad ideas in religions.  Certainly there were abuses of power.  Certainly there was hypocrisy.  But religion also contributed some of society’s most glorious cultural artworks, literature, philosophy, and, of course, theology.  The religious and spiritual impulse is a beautiful aspect in the human situation.  It makes the psyche sing.  It gives us honesty, sincerity, generosity, care for others, the quest for truth, repentance and human perfection, and ecstasy.  Without spirituality, what are we left with?

“But on earth indifference is the least/We have to dread from man or beast,” the poet W. H. Auden writes.  I don’t know.  I fear indifference.  I can’t but feel that the indifference to religion and even spirituality is numbing society.  We’re getting bland to everything, getting bland.  And we are retreating into tribes.  Instead of spiritual community that reaches out to the stranger and foreigner, we are retreating into tribes that close off the other.  We ignore religion to the peril of the loving community that the world can be.  While religion is often castigated for causing wars, I think that the lack of genuine religion is causing us to be more xenophobic and antagonistic to the other.  Will the indifference of our age ever produce another work like Beethoven’s 9th?  Will we ever know again the peace that passes understanding?  Will we ever again sing, “Love divine!  All loves excelling!”

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Parliament 4–The People You Meet

Sometimes what happens in the hallways between seminars at the Parliament of the World’s Religions is as valuable as what happens in the seminars themselves.  The very first day, I had delightful conversations with a few people in the convention centre lobby while we were looking over the 380-page program guide.  One couple from Washington State told me that they were from the Unity tradition, among other interfaith groups.  I asked them how their church was doing.  “If by ‘church’ you mean what is tied to a building, that might be a question; but if you mean ‘church’ as a movement, I’d say it’s doing wonderfully well.”  Already, I’d learned something.  From my own tradition, I thought about what Swedenborg calls the New Church.  Swedenborgians understand the New Church, described in Revelation 21 as a bride coming down from heaven, to be a world-wide movement.  An end time when the whole earth will be spiritually enlightened.  So when I heard my new acquaintance talking about religion as a movement, and that it is going wonderfully well, I felt relief and encouragement.  We were joined by another couple who were interfaith ministers.  They said that their outlook on religion is “not ‘instead-of,’ but rather, ‘in addition to.’”  By that I understood varieties of religion to supplement each other, rather than compete with each other for who’s right is righter than who’s.  One of the impromptu group that had gathered noticed that I had “Rev.” on my nametag.  She asked me what faith tradition I came from.  This afforded me the opportunity to once again, as with so many other religion conferences, introduce Swedenborg to people who hadn’t heard of him.

On another occasion, I had a delightful conversation with the former Episcopalian Bishop of the State of California.  His title, which I noticed from the business card he handed me, is “Right Reverend.”  He began our chat with the words, “I used to be important!”  We then launched into a side-splitting conversation about ecclesiastical titles.  I mentioned that I had attended a service at Westminster Abbey which was led by a “Very Reverend.”  The Right Reverend said that that meant he was Dean of the Cathedral.  We talked about how one addresses personages like the Very Reverend.  One calls them titles like, Excellency, Your Grace, or in the Orthodox Tradition, Metropolitan.  The conversation drifted to “high church” and “low church.”  One Anglican church was using candles inappropriately.  They were directed to stop using candles because they were not high church.  I asked, “You mean that the Church tells you whether you are high church or low church?!”  The Right Reverend said, “It isn’t mentioned.  It’s something you just know without being told.”  Then he wanted to get back to the subject of titles.  He said that he was in Istanbul meeting high churchmen of the Orthodox tradition.  He told me that he had someone whispering in his ear, telling him how to address the distinguished priests he was meeting.  One was, “Your excellency.”  Another was, “Metropolitan.”  Then a priest came up with a beard and mustache and The Right Reverend was told he was to be addressed as, “Bad Attitude.”  I laughed, but not sufficiently, so the Right Reverend had to explain, “He meant, ‘Beatitude, not Bad Attitude.”  Now I really laughed.  The Right Reverend went on, “I couldn’t even look at him with a straight face after that.”  I asked, “You mean that really happened!?  It wasn’t just a joke?”  “Yes, it really happened.”  The Right Reverend said he was good friends with the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The very Archbishop who had performed the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Dianna Spenser.  Later, on a visit to the US, the Archbishop wanted to see the Liberty Bell.  Dressed in a suit and tie, not in his clerics, the Archbishop was waiting in line to see the Liberty Bell, and an American struck up a conversation with him.  “I can tell y’all are from England.  Great country.  I watched the royal wedding on TV.  I had a great view with the cameras and all.  Did you get a good look at them?”  “It was as if I was standing right in front of them.”

Asked what denomination I was with, I said Swedenborgian.  The Right Reverend told me that he lived just a few blocks from the Swedenborgian Church at Pacific Heights, California.  I didn’t lose a minute before I informed the Right Reverend that Robert Frost had been baptized in that very church.  No one at the table had any idea.

I couldn’t believe that I was having this conversation about titles in such a light, funny way with one who actually has one of them.  I think of Episcopalians as being staid and formal.  And I especially think of Episcopalian bishops as being even more so.  I had no idea I would meet such a hilarious, personable guy as I found the Right Reverend to be.

Meeting people can be better than reading books, if one has an interest in different religions.  Experiences like the above only happen at interfaith gathering such as the Parliament of the World’s Religions, or another organization I like to attend called North American Interfaith Network.  Reflecting back, just meeting so many interesting, inspiring, delightful people in seminars or informally in hallways or exhibit spaces is something special about interfaith events.  The Parliament is not only seminars, lectures, and guided meditations.  It’s engaging personal encounters, too.  Like the Right Reverend, or my acquaintances from Washington, to mention just a few of many.

Back home, at a casino of all places, I was wearing the Tibetan prayer beads I bought in the exhibit hall where I met the Right Reverend.  A casino employee we had gotten to know over time asked my girlfriend about the necklace, since she hadn’t seen me wear them before (and they are unusual and striking).  This afforded me the opportunity to talk about the Parliament.  When I mentioned guided meditation, which I experienced there, our friend said that she would be interested in that.  She added some remarks about a drumming circle she goes to led by an Indigenous woman I hadn’t met, nor was even aware of.  There are also courses by donation in Indigenous Medicine offered by a Shaman, and guided journeys (which I took to be what I understand the Vision Quest to be), our friend added.  I had been trying to learn about Indigenous spirituality, and meeting with only moderate success.  Was this Shaman a way in?  In any event, a new experience opened up to me, in the drumming circle and Shaman course here in my own town!  This, just by meeting and talking at a public venue about the Parliament of the World’s Religions.  One just never knows about people, does one?

Parliament 3–The Star Teaching

For an hour and a half, I was afforded a glimpse into the world of First Nations.  I attended a talk about the Star Teachings from an elder of the Mi’kmoq Nation, David Sanipass.  When I went to the seminar, I thought I was going to hear some ancient First Nations lore and stories.  I was waiting the whole time for the Star Teachings.  Instead, his wife opened the seminar by telling a story.  She said that David had encouraged her to go to the bank with a twenty-dollar bill she had, and change it into single dollars.  Then she was to start giving away the dollar bills.  That proved more difficult than she had imagined.  She went to a grocery store and tried to give the cashier a dollar.  But the cashier exclaimed, “I can’t take that!  I’d get fired!  But you could go to the next cash register and give it to the woman in line there.”  So she did.  Then she went around the store giving out the dollars.  In the long run, giving these dollars out got people talking about why she was doing it.  It transformed the whole atmosphere of the store.  While she was telling her story, I was waiting for the Elder to start talking.  And I was waiting for the Star Teachings.

The Elder did speak.  He opened with a 24,000-year-old story about Creation.  As he spoke, the Elder would pick up his flute and play tunes.  The story began before Creation.  There was a great bird who had the most wonderful song.  Since humans couldn’t speak, the bird was going to give them the gift of his song.  But his grandfather came to earth in the form of an old man and coaxed the humans into talking.  The bird got mad, thinking himself duped, and decided to hide his song in a cedar tree at the centre of a swamp.  He returned to the swamp later, but couldn’t find his song.  David asked his father if that was a true story, or just a legend.  His father told him to go to the swamp and listen.  He did, but a woodpecker kept pecking at the tree.  This bothered young David because it was interfering with the song he was trying to hear from the primordial Great Bird.  But when a woodpecker pecks a tree, he makes holes in it, like the holes in a flute.  Young David missed the song.

David told two more stories.  One about him giving last rights to a woman pinned in an overturned car.  When he was young, David had been authorized to give the Catholic Last Rites.  Once, there was a woman pinned in a car that had overturned from an auto accident.  David climbed in the car and gave the woman the Last Rites.  All the while, gasoline was dripping onto his shirt, and the First Responders tried to get him to leave the overturned car before it exploded.  “No,” David said.  He stayed with the woman until she went into infinity, back to the stars.

His last story was the longest.  It was about a bear hunt.  Feeling excluded from the other elders at a story-telling gathering, because he didn’t have white hair, David went to an elder for advice.  “Go on a bear hunt,” the elder said.  David decided he would shoot the bear with a camera.  Trying to photograph a bear, despite the dangers, occasioned many hilarious adventures.  The story ends with David running from the bear which he awoke with the flash from his camera, running through the forest and getting bent double by running into a fallen tree, climbing another tree to escape the bear.  But the bear sniffed and followed him through the field, climbed up the tree and stared him face to face.  The bear talked, “You lost your camera when you ran into the tree in the forest, I came to return it to you.”  So saying the bear climbed down the tree and walked into the forest.  Shaking with fear, David discovered that the film had all fallen out of the camera.  When he got home, David looked in a mirror and saw that he had white hair!  He held the whole lecture hall in rapt attention.  In the telling of his story, David had carried us all into a special collective experience of love and interconnectedness.  By the time the bear hunt story was over, we’d run out of time.

David said he would give us the Star Teaching.  All he said was, “Don’t let the moment end now.  Bring this message out into the world.”  I was left to wonder what the Star Teaching is.  What I came up with, and I’m not sure I got it right, was that David’s wife’s story about giving away dollar bills, and the story about staying with the woman in the overturned car, and the bear hunt were all the Star Teachings.  It is a teaching about love.  It is a teaching about going out of our way to bring love into the moment, onto earth.  It was about the power we have to make the world a more loving place.

I was personally and professionally transformed by my experiences at the Parliament of the World’s Religions.  And I have more experiences to narrate in the upcoming days.  After the intense seminars, the guided Vedanta meditations, the Indigenous stories, the Nithya healing I underwent, I came away a different person.  It will take some time to integrate everything I learned with my own Swedenborgian faith tradition.  For learning something new, even personal transformation, doesn’t mean abandoning what we know about religion.  Rather, it means accommodating, and integrating it all together.

I’ve been practicing my understanding of the Star Teachings lately.  I’ve been buying food for homeless men, confronted convenience store clerks who didn’t understand why I was doing it, meeting the barrister at my local coffee shop, trying to make all my relations a real human interaction.  Spreading the message of love, the Star Teachings as I understood them.

I knew these teachings from my Christian background.  But for some reason, they never spoke to me the way they did when David Sanipass spoke.  Hadn’t Jesus said, “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. . . . But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High” (Luke 6:30-35).  For some reason, it took David’s stories to energize me to act.

Parliament 2–The Nithya Healing Shrine

The Parliament of the World’s Religions isn’t just seminars.  There are crafts, schools, art, and other representations from the many cultures and religions that are present at the Parliament.  I went to the exhibit hall to look at crafts, books, jewelry, shawls, clothing and all kinds of merchandise from the 220 distinguishably different faiths at the conference. The exhibits room was vast, and a friend from home and I meandered around for a couple hours.  One interesting place we came upon was an imposing portable Hindu temple with golden statues and pillars, where Balasons, young girls who were brought up in a temple, were saying prayers of healing.  They were dressed all in orange, I suppose technically it is saffron.  You could get “scanned” by the third eye of the Balasons who would diagnose you and heal you.  The whole thing was frightening to me.  How does one walk up to the Balasons?  What do you do when you get up there?  What was all this?  What could a teen know about me or the world?  I was really skeptical about all this.  Furthermore, you were supposed to kneel in front of the Balasons, and I don’t kneel in front of anyone.

There were men and women loitering around the Balason temple who seemed to be part of the outfit.  I asked an elderly woman in a sarong if the girls were Yoginis (female yogis), and was told that they were higher than Yoginis.  My octogenarian friend generously did some recon for me.  She went up for a healing.  The young Balason prayed over my friend and told her to think of strength, say she is strong, and move more.  Afterward, my friend seemed to glow and did move faster throughout the rest of the day.  I thought about all this.  And decided that next day I would go up there and see what the Balason would do for me.  It was exposure to things like this that brought me to the Parliament.

Next day, I returned to the Nithya Spiritual Healing shrine, as I found out it was called.  I spoke with a beautiful middle-aged white woman in a sarong about what I was getting into.  I was thinking, “What’s a white girl like you doing here?”  But, of course, I couldn’t ask her, or so I thought.  She told me that the healing was called Nithya, and that the Balasons were disciples of the Guru Paramahamsa Nithyananda.  I inferred that the Nithya healing was named after their Guru.  A male in white Indian clothes, came up, and, when I told him I was going to write an article about this, he gave me all kinds of information.  This sect are worshippers of  ParamaShiva (Lord Shiva).  Their Guru is His Holiness Paramahamsa Nithyananda.  The Balasons have had their third eye opened by the Guru.  I decided to take the plunge.

They brought me a medical waiver to fill out.  Then I stood in line.  There was always a line all day long to see the Balasons.  Mostly women.  Standing in line, I was a mixture of skepticism, balanced with an open mind.  Today, people were sitting in front of the Balasons, instead of kneeling.  That, I could do.  My turn came.  The young Balason carried herself with authority, confidence, and detachment.  She had no ego.  She stunned me by speaking about a psycho-spiritual issue that had been plaguing me most of my life.  Then she said a second one.  And she was dead-on.  She closed her eyes and prayed a short while and said, “The healing is done.”  That meant our session was over.  She was right.  Right about everything about me—a stranger—and about the healing.  What she said to me was not the kind of general thing that would apply to everybody.  They were important issues I had, that I needed to hear articulated in words to make me understand how much of a problem it was and release I felt when it was articulated.  “Of course,” I thought.  She saw me with her third eye—me a skeptic.

Though the healing was free, they did have a donation box.  In my gratitude for the healing, I went to drop a donation into the box and saw the white woman who had assisted me with the forms and procedure.  She smiled a smile of gratitude when I dropped in my donation.  I looked her in the eyes and said, “There’s something to this!”  She smiled, saying nothing.  I knew she knew I understood.

Personal Transformation at the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions

Over the dates November 1-7, I had the privilege of attending the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto, Canada—“The Promise of Inclusion, the Power of Love: Pursuing Global Understanding, Reconciliation, and Change.”  I will be posting a series of blogs about my experiences there, which were extraordinary.  I am not the same Swedenborgian I was before the Parliament.  I understand my own tradition differently, understand religion differently, understand more fully all the richness that God’s world is.  I learned in general that encountering other religions is much more than intellectually inquiring about beliefs.  I learned much about many traditions and perspectives.  But it would be a mistake to think that one now understands a tradition that others have spent their lives growing into.  The Parliament of the World’s Religions is a taste, not a meal.

The seminars were divided into 10 categories: 1) Justice, 2) Women’s Dignity, 3) Global Ethic, 4) Next Generation, 5) Countering Hate and Violence, 6) Sacred Space, 7) Indigenous Peoples’ Program, 8) Climate Action, 9) Interfaith Understanding, 10) Science and Religion.  As is always the case at these kinds of gatherings, you can’t do everything.  There are several seminars going on at the same time.  It took me about an hour and a half to figure out how to read the program guide and to decide on the seminars I would attend.

Sometimes what happens in the hallways between seminars, at conferences like the Parliament, is as valuable as what happens in the seminars themselves.  Previous to the formal opening, I had delightful conversations with a few people in the convention centre lobby while we were all looking over the 380-page program guide.  One couple from Washington State told me that they were from the Unity tradition, among other interfaith groups.  I asked them how their church was doing.  “If by ‘church’ you mean what is tied to a building, that might be questionable; but if you mean ‘church’ as a movement, I’d say it’s doing wonderfully well.”  Already, I’d learned something.  From my own tradition, I thought about what the New Church really is.  We were joined by another couple who were interfaith ministers.  They said that their outlook on religion is “not ‘instead-of,’ but rather, ‘in addition to.’”  By that I understood varieties of religion to supplement each other, rather than compete with each other for who’s right is righter than who’s.  I was off to a good start.

Attending the Parliament of the World’s Religions was spiritually transforming for me.  Such a compressed, intense exposure to leaders of other faith traditions must have a powerful impact on a seeker with an open mind.  Nevertheless, reflecting on my experiences, I realize that however intense my exposure was, my grounding is in my own tradition.  My own understanding has been given a good jolt in a positive direction.  Areas of my own faith that weren’t working for me, have been adjusted by techniques from other religions that do work.  I am enjoying seeing the world differently than I saw it before the Parliament.  I am enjoying the world more than I had before the Parliament.  I am enjoying my fellows here on earth better than I did before the Parliament.  It will take some time before I fully integrate my experiences at the Parliament into my spiritual life.

I didn’t expect to be so moved by the Parliament.  I did expect to learn and celebrate, but not to be transformed.  I will share meaningful experiences from those remarkable seven days in the upcoming posts.  It is my story, but others may find meaning in it, and may find inspiration to further investigate truths from the traditions I experienced by their own methods of spiritual questing.